Mary Pengilly’s Diary, 1885

Diary Written in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum

Mary Huetis Pengilly
Published by the author, 1985
Original held by the National Library of Canada.
An audio version of this volume is available on LibriVox free public domain audiobooks.

Diary Written in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum was self-published in 1885 by Mary Huestis Pengilly, a former patient in New Brunswick’s Provincial Lunatic Asylum.  Although Pengilly was likely a paying patient, she still criticized the institution for poor food and harsh treatment.  The volume opens with the poignant words, “They will not let me go home.”

old building with woman wearing white dresses on grassBorn in 1823, Pengilly was raised in Connecticut and worked as a schoolteacher.  When she married the widowed Robert Pengilly of Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1847, she was living in Queensbury, west of Fredericton.  The couple had five sons and one daughter. They appear to have led a comfortable life until the Great Fire of Saint John of 1877 destroyed their home and business. With their sons forced to migrate to Massachusetts for work, Mary Pengilly and daughter Clara soon followed, but Clara’s death in 1882 was unstandabley tragic for her mother, who eventually became delusional.  Against Mary’s wishes, her sons Lewis and Thomas committed her to the asylum in Saint John, where she spent six months.  Upon her release Mary met with the Solicitor-General, the Governor, and the Board of Commissioners to press for better conditions at the asylum.  She published her diary twelve months later.

Mary Pengilly spent the remaining nine years of her life as a traveling poet, selling verse said to be inspired by angels alongside copies of her diary.  She died at Mercy Hospital in Dubuque, Iowa in 1893.